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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Secretary of the Navy Gordon England told a group of Yokosuka’s top officers and enlisted sailors Wednesday that this is both an historic and “terrific” time to be in the Navy.

He also said the 382,000 sailors now in the Navy will shrink by about 7,000 as equipment and personnel become more efficient. England said coming years will see increased Naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region but couldn’t answer more specifically what changes lay in store for Pacific sailors as part of the military’s transformation and realignment plans.

“What the end game is, I don’t know the answer yet,” England said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

This is an important time to be in the Navy, he said, because of the war on terror. And it’s a terrific time, because the Navy — with a $119 billion budget — has “a lot more money that we’ve ever had,” England said.

During a mostly upbeat talk over lunch at the base’s main galley, England, who was deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, talked at length about terrorism, comparing it to fascism and communism, and predicted the fight against it could last as long as the Cold War.

He defended the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, saying, “You can not protect America from America,” and that the U.S. could “dramatically affect the Middle East to curtail terrorism.”

But the two-time Navy Department secretary and former General Dynamics Corp. executive also talked about new ships now being designed and built “for the next 40 years,” he said.

The number of Navy ships has shrunk from 307 to 295, as older ships requiring heavy maintenance were decommissioned. “We’re in the low point, on the way up,” England said.

Among new vessels he mentioned that are expected eventually to bring the total to 375 are the littoral combat ship or LCS, scheduled to begin construction in fiscal 2005. Littoral ships are those designed to operate near shorelines, to deploy troops rapidly, for instance. The LCS is to be an “agile, stealthy surface combatant,” according to Global Security.org, that “will rely heavily on manned and unmanned vehicles.”

The Navy secretary stopped in Yokosuka during an Asia-Pacific regional tour that has taken him to Tokyo, Guam and Singapore and will take him to Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Hawaii. The trip was to thank the Japanese government for being the region’s most important U.S. ally and for sending troops to Iraq - and, England said, to thank U.S. sailors and Marines, whom he said he likes to regard as a family.

As such, he made two special pitches to commanders. England said he wanted to ensure sailors were registered to vote, and wanted attention paid to reduce the number of casualties from accidents. Twenty-five percent of casualties in Iraq are due to accidents of one sort or another, he noted; reducing those casualties wouldn’t just mean an increase in efficiency, England told the commanders. “We do care about and love these people,” he said.

England and his entourage later traveled to Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station on Wednesday evening and left about 90 minutes later following a meeting with base leaders and going on a bus tour.

Much of the briefing was about the ongoing $2.2 billion runway relocation project expected to be complete and functional by 2009-2010.

England was briefed about the city and Yamaguchi Prefecture governments desiring partial use of the new runway for commercial flights. Negotiations pertaining to meeting the needs of the Marine Corps and the municipalities are momentarily at a standstill, but will proceed.

— Greg Tyler contributed to this report.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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